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Saturday, 13 January, 2001, 13:01 GMT
Cambodia: Life after death
Cambodian children
Children scavenge in the streets for food
By Hamilton Wende in Phnom Penh

Hong Kheang meets us at the airport. He is a handsome man in his early forties who says little. He helps us put our bags into his car.

The boulevards leading into town are lined with trees dripping in red and white blossoms. The giant stupas are gold against the sky.

Crumbling French buildings with bougainvillea climbing the yellow walls lie next to ornate Buddhist and Hindu statues. The rubbish-strewn alleyways lined with shanties contrast with the neatly-trimmed lawns of the public squares.

Beauty after destruction

The Phnom Penh Royal Palace
The Royal Palace reminds Cambodians of more prosperous times
Despite the horrors of war, Phnom Penh remains a beautiful city. Barefoot children run along the edges of the roads, grandfathers ride motor-scooters, women in colourful wraps balance enormous plates of tropical fruit on their heads.

Everybody is busy, but everybody, just like Hong, still takes the time to smile.

I have to stop myself for a moment. Hong is one of the generation who spent the best years of their lives under the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. They forced the entire population of the cities into the countryside to work in their slave camps. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or died of starvation for the crime of being middle-class.

Today the city is filled with businessmen talking on mobile phones, people selling cigarettes, mothers with young children. Everybody here over thirty lived through the Khmer Rouge - everybody over the age of three has lived through the Vietnamese occupation and the civil war.

Hong can never forget. "That time was very bad," he tells me. "Everyone was forced out of town. Phnom Penh was like a ghost town. I was in the countryside working in the rice fields - no school, nothing, for three years, eight months and twenty days." "You kept an exact count?" I ask. He nods. "Of course."

Hong takes me to see Wat Phnom, with its tame elephants and fortune tellers. It is built on the hill where legend says that four Buddha images were washed up by the river.

Evil legacy

Phnom Penh prison
Many Cambodians lived and died in Phnom Penh prison
The Royal Palace with its golden spires reaches up to the heavens. The Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha has 5,000 floor tiles of pure silver and the Chan Chaya Pavilion was the stage of the elegant Cambodian ballet.

Down the potholed back streets of the city, we enter the real centre of Hong's life: Tuol Sleng prison - a high school converted into a crude jail by the Khmer Rouge.

We wander through the ghastly corridors, peering into classrooms with their grisly bars and rusting beds where prisoners were chained and tortured. The trunks of the palm trees bear the scars of machete cuts and bullet holes.

"Cambodians," Hong says, shaking his head. "We are the worst, I think. We killed our own people. It is unbelievable."

Dusk is a beautiful sight. The city slows as the horizon turns mauve and silver. The streetlamps and the neon signs flicker on. The new millionaires cruise by in their Mercedes-Benzes, and the young optimists of this society pour cold beer in the cafes.

But under the shallow glitter AK-47s or even hand-grenades are easy to buy, and a murder costs a few hundred dollars.

Lotus flowers
Lotus flowers are a familiar site in Cambodia
As the sunset fades, you can feel the edge of fear and violence - the ragged street children, the trishaw drivers who wait all night for a dollar, and the prostitutes filling the bars - young girls from the countryside who will never go home again.

Ancient grandeur

Jade paddy fields, tall palms against a blue sky, white oxen pulling wooden carts and children splashing in the canals - outside Phnom Penh is a life that hasn't changed since the grandeur of the ancient Khmers.

Their huge stone temples and palaces lie in the jungle, filled with parrots and monkeys. Many of the ruins are choked by enormous tree roots.

The monsoon clouds part and a rainbow arches over the spires of Angkor Wat. We cross the moat filled with lotus and water-lilies. Saffron-robed monks sit in stone doorways. Incense curls around the headless stone Buddhas.

Heavenly Apsaras still dance between the bullet scars on the stonework, and shafts of sunlight fall onto the bas-reliefs of the Battle of the Gods and Demons.

Outside, beyond the shaded vaults of the Elephant Gate, the beggars advance on us - tiny, dirty children, haggard old men, middle-aged women trying to smile. One of them stands out for me - a young man in a wheelchair, both his legs blown off by a landmine.

I have seen damage - people in Manhattan quickly stepping past a body on the street, AK-47s spitting death in the dusty townships of South Africa, and the rotting corpses piled up in the green valleys of Rwanda.


There is the collective memory of all that and more buried in the gentle face of this young man. The tragic calmness in his eyes speaks for all the broken lives that lie beneath the smiles of Cambodia's people. He accepts some money gracefully, but with his legs gone no money can ever be enough.

Aids orphan at the Phnom Penh Nutrition Centre
Many Cambodian children still live in poverty
Later, with a chorus of frogs filling the night air, I find myself thinking of the wonders of this country - the bright canna lilies against the rice fields, the families laughing in the shade of their houses on stilts, the fishermen and fruit-sellers in their long thin boats that drift on the silver currents of the Mekong, and the endless flow of people in the city night.

I can't help remembering Hong's sad words, and wishing I had said to him then, " No you're not the worst, not by a long way. It's just that you've seen the worst, and yet you've survived."

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See also:

02 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia backs genocide law
14 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pol Pot: Life of a tyrant
02 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Masters of the killing fields
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